By Dr. Laurie Hess, Dipl ABVP (Avian Practice)
We do our best to keep our family members, including our pets, safe at home. Yet, as a result of their ability to fly and their inherent nature to chew, pet birds are subject to many potential home dangers that other pets are not subject to and that you might even not be aware of. What kinds of danger? Consider these 10 common household dangers for pet birds:
Like their wild counterparts, pet birds can be adept flyers but often face hazards in homes that wild birds would never encounter. Flighted pet birds often fly out open windows and doors and smack into mirrors and ceiling fans. They also fly into open washers, dryers and refrigerators. If they land on top of an open door, and if that door is slammed, they may get crushed.
Pet birds can fly into open containers of hot food and liquid (such as coffee, tea, soup and boiling water) and into open flames (in fireplaces and lit candles). They can fly into open toilets, where they may drown, or down to the floor, where they may accidentally get stepped on. Birds also fly into Venetian blinds where they get stuck between slats or caught up in cords.
If you are going to allow your bird to fly, he or she must be supervised when out of the cage. Otherwise, you can limit your bird’s ability to fly with a temporary wing clipping, performed by your veterinarian, that should allow your bird to sail safely to the floor but not get lift and that will grow back in a few months if you decide that flight is right.
Parrots, like small children, are very oral and like to put everything in their mouths. As their name – hook bills – implies, parrots use their pointy beaks, strong jaws and dexterous tongues to manipulate, explore and chew objects. In our homes, however, parrots’ innate curiosity can get them into trouble.
Pet birds chew paint on baseboards and window sills that may contain lead, and they gnaw on soldered or stained glass objects, galvanized wire, linoleum, batteries and other items found in homes or garages that contain toxic metals such as lead, zinc, and copper. They also pick up small shiny objects, such as jewelry, that are enticing to eat. Thus, when parrots have out-of-cage time, they must be monitored closely and kept far away from any potential tempting toxins.
Birds have unique respiratory tracts that are exquisitely sensitive to aerosolized toxins. Non-stick coatings such as Teflon found on pots and pans and inside some stoves and toaster ovens may kill pet birds when these coatings are heated to high temperatures. When hot, these coatings release a colorless, odorless vapor that, when breathed in by birds, causes fluid to accumulate in their lungs, leading to almost immediate death.
In addition, certain candles have lead in the wicks that may become aerosolized when the candles burn and should never be lit anywhere near birds. Other airborne toxins, such as incense, cooking fumes, spray cleaners and perfumes, may be irritating to the lining of birds’ respiratory tracts and should never be used around them.
As with aerosols, birds are acutely sensitive to cigarette and cigar smoke. Smoke inhalation by birds can lead to recurrent respiratory tract infections, difficulty breathing and even death. Birds can get sick not only from breathing in smoke but also from ingesting nicotine off smokers’ hands or clothing. Birds perching on a nicotine-coated hand can end up with irritated feet, beaks and mouths. Birds whose feet are irritated by nicotine may chew on their toes until they bleed. Birds also may ingest nicotine when they preen feathers on which secondhand smoke has landed.
Even smokers who smoke nowhere near their birds have nicotine and other chemicals deposited on their clothes that their birds can pick up when these pets perch on them. Thus, if you smoke, even if it’s away from your pets, a bird is not the best pet for you.
Many bird owners also have cats and dogs and, as natural predators, these pets often instinctually to want to run after prey such as birds.
Even if they are well-meaning, playful dogs and cats have sharp nails that can puncture a bird’s thin skin, as well as strong jaws and teeth that can crush a bird’s small body. Scratches and bite wounds inflicted by dogs and cats can introduce foreign bacteria into birds’ systems, often leading to serious, sometimes deadly infection.
Like playful dogs and cats, well-intentioned young children who simply want to play with a bird may restrain it too tightly or drop it, leading to significant injury or even death. Therefore, dogs, cats and young children should never be allowed to interact with birds without supervision, no matter how gentle these seemingly friendly playmates seem.
Foods containing chocolate, caffeine and alcohol are toxic to birds and should never be offered to them, even in small amounts. In addition, avocadoes, garlic, onions and salty foods, such as pretzels, chips, popcorn and some crackers, can also cause serious illness in birds.
Avocadoes can cause birds’ lungs to fill with fluid, while garlic and onions can cause birds to develop potentially fatal anemia. Ingestion of large quantities of salt can upset a bird’s electrolyte and fluid balance, potentially resulting in cardiac problems. Like us, birds love to eat, but bird owners must be wise to not feed their pets potentially toxic treats.
Birds like to chew on everything around them, including plants. In the wild, birds naturally gnaw on plants to survive. Many pet owners have plants in their homes and never think about whether they are safe for birds to ingest. Some bird owners may let their birds perch on plants in their yards or on their porches without ever considering what they are perching on.
Certain plants simply irritate a bird’s gastrointestinal tract when ingested, while others may cause death. Common houseplants unsafe for birds include Calla lilies, mistletoe, philodendron, rhododendron, poinsettia and yew. Before allowing a pet bird exposure to a plant, bird owners should check with their veterinarians or a pet poison control hotline to be sure that the plant is safe.
Ingestion of prescription and over-the-counter drugs for humans is a common cause of death among all types of pets each year, according to the ASPCA. Birds, in particular, are attracted to smooth, colorful objects like pills and love to put them in their mouths, often accidentally ingesting them.
Once ingested, pills are rapidly metabolized by birds, and their accidental ingestion of human medications at high doses intended for people can lead to serious illness and death. Bird owners must be vigilant to never leave out medications for their birds to access.
Common items used to catch insects and rodents, such as sticky paper, glue traps and snap traps, can cause serious injury and death if a bird gets into them. Flighted birds can land on traps and get stuck in them, plus birds can ingest poison bait from traps and die.
Attempts to unstick birds from glue traps, even with gentle solvents commonly used for this purpose, such as Dawn dishwashing detergent, can lead to tearing of their delicate skin and painful ripping out of their feathers. Glue or baited pest traps should never be used around birds, and birds trapped in these devices should receive immediate veterinary care.
While birds feed each other by ingesting food and regurgitating it back up to share, this is not something pet owners should do for their birds, as humans have bacteria, yeast, and other organisms in their mouths that are not found in birds and that can cause serious, potentially fatal infections. Therefore, bird owners should never share food from their mouths with their birds or even from their plates, if food on the plate has been touched with utensils that have been inside a human mouth.
Just as new parents need to baby-proof their homes, and new dog owners need to puppy-proof theirs, bird owners should bird-proof their homes, too, particularly if their birds fly. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and when it comes to keeping your pet bird safe and happy in your home, this is certainly true.